With the NBA's early entry deadline in the rearview mirror, Northern Iowa guard A.J. Green is back, and the Panthers are once again the preseason favorite to win the 2021 Missouri Valley Conference championship.
Of course, there will be several contenders for this season's conference title, led by two-time MVC Tournament champion Bradley, Loyola, which could return five senior starters, and your upstart Salukis. It's also tough to count out Tyreke Key, Jake LaRavia and Indiana State, Gaige Prim and Missouri State, and even Drake, which started a shocking Valley Tournament with a shocking upset of those top-seeded Panthers in St. Louis.
Forward Tremell Murphy is back for Drake after playing in only five games last season, along with All-Newcomer Team point guard Roman Penn, Noah Thomas, D.J. Wilkins and former John A. Logan College shooter Jonah Jackson.
UNI coach Ben Jacobson, in his 15th season with the Panthers, is eager to see how Green takes what the NBA scouts told him during the draft process.
"One of the things that we've really appreciated, and one of the things I've really enjoyed being around A.J. is how much he craves feedback," Jacobson said. "Whether it refers to in-season, to what we're doin' headin' into a game, what he's doin', what he needs to be lookin' at, what he needs to be workin' on. Any kind of feedback, and he's always been that way, and no difference with the process of the NBA draft."
UNI, which was on the brink of a possible at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament before it was canceled, returns fellow first team all-conference pick Austin Phyfe (11.2 points per game, league-leading 8.2 rebounds per game) and sharpshooter Trae Berhow (44.6% from the 3-point line). Jacobson believes 6-foot-4 guard Tywhon Pickford can help the Panthers overcome some of the drop-off from losing MVC Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Brown. UNI also adds freshman guard Bowen Born, the Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year, and redshirt freshman forward Cole Henry, who won a state title at Oskaloosa High School in Iowa.
Loyola, which came a game away from tying the Panthers for what would have been their third straight conference title, is the only team in the league with five returning starters. Coach Porter Moser also returns sophomore guard Marquise Kennedy, a member of the All-Freshman Team last season, and sophomore guard Cooper Kaifes after he missed last season with a torn labrum in his hip.
"He's a very, very tough kid," Moser said. "He stretches the defense out so much because he's an elite shooter. And I think he's a good passer, he had 48 assists his freshman year, so, I'm looking forward to having him back in the mix completely healthy."
The Ramblers made the fewest 3-pointers in the league last season, 185 in 32 games, but still won 21 games. Kaifes shot 46.5% from behind the arc as a true freshman in 2018-19, and Loyola should get a lift from Oakland transfer Braden Norris (48.6% from the 3-point line).
Bradley still has two of the most dynamic players in the Valley in forward Elijah Childs (14.8 ppg., 8.7 rpg.) and guard/forward Ja'Shon Henry (9.5 ppg., 6 rpg., 51.4% from the field) but have to replace senior shotmaker Darrell Brown. Fortunately for the Braves, they have plenty of options after Sean East II, a transfer from UMass that was awarded a waiver from the NCAA for this season.
"Sean East, if he's eligible (can fill that role)," Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. "If not, we feel really good about Kevin McAdoo and Antonio Thomas, who played a lot of minutes at the point for us last year, and then Danya Kingsby is another guy who can slide over there and play the point for us. I feel good about having four guys that I can put the ball in their hands, and they have experience at the Division I level."
SIU returns two starters from last season's 16-16 squad that finished fifth in the league, sophomore guards Marcus Domask and Lance Jones. Domask became the first Saluki since Rolan Roberts to win the MVC Newcomer of the Year Award and was also named the league's top freshman after leading the team in scoring (13.6 ppg), 3-pointers (54), 3-point percentage (39.7%) and minutes per game (34.9). Jones was one of the team's most clutch performers in his first season as the starting point guard.
Domask was also the team's second-leading rebounder at 5.2 per game, a category the Salukis struggled with mightily in coach Bryan Mullins' first season.
SIU led the league in scoring defense, allowing 62.2 points per game, but was last in rebounding margin (minus-5.4 per game). The Salukis added three bigs to returning sophomore forward Sekou Dembele, graduate transfer Anthony D'Avanzo, junior college forward J.D. Muila and freshman forward Kyler Filewich. D'Avanzo averaged 8.4 rebounds per game at Division II Lewis University last season and was a prolific 3-point shooter, sinking 55 of 138 behind the arc (39.9%), one more than Domask did last season.
Muila, a 6-8 junior from Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College, averaged 6.8 rebounds per game and was ranked the 24th-best juco player in the nation by JucoRecruiting.com.
"His motor. His effort. He cares, and obviously, the athletic ability just in terms of quick-twich muscle, and just being able to go get boards out of his area," Mullins said. "He's trying to go get rebounds, and I think that's such a key in terms of that aspect of his game."
Here is your Way-Too-Early look at the Valley for 2020-21:
BRADLEY BRAVES (23-11 2019-20, 11-7 MVC, tied for third place, won MVC Tournament)
Coach: Brian Wardle (81-86 at BU, sixth season, 176-151 overall)
Returning starters: F Elijah Childs (14.8 ppg., 8.7 rpg., 49.8% FG, 30 blocks), G Danya Kingsby (7.2 ppg., 2.8 rpg., 68 assists, 59 turnovers)
Big additions: G Terry Nolan Jr., G Kevin McAdoo, F Rienk Mast, G Sean East II
Missing in action: PG Darrell Brown, C Koch Bar, G Nate Kennell
Notes: Bradley won its second straight MVC Tournament with a decisive win over upstart Valparaiso in March, and has some building blocks for a third straight run. Childs and Ja'Shon Henry, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound junior guard/forward, give the Braves two of the most dynamic players in the Valley. Sophomore guard Ville Tahnvanainen (43-110 3s, 39.1%) made the MVC All-Bench Team last season and is the squad's top returning 3-point shooter. Brown's graduation leaves a big hole at point guard, but BU won a waiver for UMass transfer Sean East II to be immediately eligible, and Kingsby could also play some minutes there. The Braves might also get some help there from McAdoo, a sit-out from Eastern Michigan who had 45 assists in 2018-19 with 13 double-figure scoring games.
DRAKE BULLDOGS (20-14, 8-10 MVC, eighth place)
Coach: Darian DeVries (44-24 at DU, third season, 44-24 overall)
Returning starters: G Roman Penn (12 ppg., 4.7 rpg., 192 assists, 83 turnovers, 43 steals, MVC All-Newcomer Team), G D.J. Wilkins (8.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg.), G Jonah Jackson (6 ppg., 0.7 rpg., 66-166 3s, 39.8% 3PT), F Tremell Murphy (5 ppg., 3.4 rpg., started five games before left knee injury)
Big additions: G ShanQuan Hemphill, F Issa Samake
Missing in action: C Liam Robbins, F Anthony Murphy, F Antonio Pilipovic
Notes: Losing Robbins, a 7-1 center who was the most improved player in the league last season, to Minnesota as a transfer was a hit. Robbins, Penn and Tremell Murphy gave the Bulldogs a big potential core for the 2020-21 season, but now Drake must depend on redshirt freshman forward Issa Samake to pick up some of the slack inside. Samake redshirted last season after helping Grand View Christian High School to back-to-back Iowa Class 1A state championships. The Bulldogs do return four starters from last season if you include Tremell Murphy, a versatile 6-6 forward who can guard a lot of different positions. Hemphill, a 6-6 forward from Green Bay that will be a graduate transfer this year, is an intriguing addition. He scored in double figures 28 times in 38 games his junior year before missing a lot of last season due to injury.
EVANSVILLE PURPLE ACES (9-23, 0-18 MVC, 10th place)
Coach: Todd Lickliter (0-13 at UE, second season, 218-168 overall)
Returning starters: G/F Sam Cunliffe (11.2 ppg., 4.1 rpg.), G Jawaun Newton (5.5 ppg., 2.8 rpg.),
Big additions: G Emmette Page, F Iyen Enaruna, F Alex Matthews, G Thomasi Gilgeous-Alexander, G Samari Curtis
Missing in action: F DeAndre Williams, G K.J. Riley, F John Hall
Notes: Nearly half of Evansville's team will be new this year, and that might not be a bad thing. The Aces went through three head coaches in 2019-20 (Walter McCarty, interim Bennie Seltzer and Lickliter), lost 20 in a row to end the season, and then lost their best player in Williams to Memphis. Cunliffe, a 6-8 senior guard who can play inside and out, is a great place to start for the Aces, but he's not willing to be the beginning of a rebuild. Lickliter has several promising newcomers, including Nebraska transfer Curtis, a former Ohio Player of the Year, and the reigning Kentucky Player of the Year in the freshman forward, Matthews. Enaruna, a 6-9 junior forward from Cloud County (Kansas) Community College, averaged 12.2 points and 8.2 rebounds last season.
ILLINOIS STATE REDBIRDS (10-21, 5-13 MVC, ninth place)
Coach: Dan Muller (149-117 at ISU, ninth season, 149-117 overall)
Returning starters: F Keith Fisher III (9.6 ppg., 6 rpg.), G D.J. Horne (8.7 ppg., 3.1 rpg.)
Big additions: F Dusan Mahorcic, F Alex Kotov, G Josiah Strong, G Emon Washington
Missing in action: G Zach Copeland, G Jaycee Hillsman, F Rey Idowu
Notes: Fisher, Horne, a member of the MVC All-Freshman Team, and sophomore guard Antonio Reeves give the Redbirds a core to build around. Mahorcic, a 6-10, 230-pound forward from Moberly Area (Missouri) Community College, averaged 9.9 points and six rebounds per game last season. He blocked 33 shots and scored 10 or more points in 16 games. Kotov, who is also 6-10, hails from Daytona State (Florida) College. Strong (17.8 ppg., 3.8 rpg., 2.1 apg.) was an honorable mention NJCAA All-American and could help replace Copeland and Hillsman's scoring. Washington, one of nine newcomers on ISU's 16-player roster, was the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Class 6A North Co-Player of the Year at South Cobb High School.
INDIANA STATE SYCAMORES (18-12, 11-7 MVC, tied for third place)
Coach: Greg Lansing (166-154 at ISU, 11th season, 166-154 overall)
Returning starters: G Tyreke Key (15.6 ppg., 4.6 rpg., 44.9% FG, 84.6% FT), F Jake LaRavia (9.4 ppg., 5.9 rpg., 52.9% FG), F Tre Williams (7.2 ppg., 4.2 rpg., 54.7% FG), G Cooper Neese (7.3 ppg., 2.5 rpg.)
Big additions: F Kailes Stephens, C Ndongo Ndaw, G Tobias Howard Jr., G Randy Miller Jr.
Missing in action: G Jordan Barnes, C Bronson Kessinger, G Christian Williams
Notes: With Key, Barnes and Neese, the Sycamores featured a solid backcourt last season, and freshmen Tre Williams and Jake LaRavia gave the program an inside presence it hadn't had in years. ISU was incredibly streaky, losing its first four games, including a home contest to Ball State, but winning eight in a row at one point, including its league opener over SIU. The Sycamores beat Northern Iowa and Loyola during the regular season, topping the Ramblers by 29 points in early February, but got embarrassed at the MVC Tournament by Missouri State (78-51). Barnes leaves a big hole in experience and ballhandling (he had 111 assists last season). ISU added two junior college transfers in the frontcourt and two graduate transfers in the backcourt to an already high-scoring squad.
LOYOLA RAMBLERS (21-11, 13-5 MVC, second place)
Coach: Porter Moser (162-136 at LU, 10th season, 267-237 overall)
Returning starters: C Cameron Krutwig (15.1 ppg., 8.1 rpg., 4.2 apg., 56.3% FG), G/F Tate Hall (12.7 ppg., 3.9 rpg., 47.8% FG, 42.6% 3PT), G Keith Clemons (10.4 ppg., 1.7 rpg., 45.7% 3PT), G Lucas Williamson (9 ppg., 3.3 rpg., 49 steals), F Aher Uguak (5.7 ppg., 3.9 rpg., 51.7% FG)
Big additions: G Baylor Hebb, G Braden Norris
Missing in action: G Jalon Pipkins
Notes: UNI got a lot of the headlines last season, but Loyola came one game from winning or tying for its third straight MVC regular-season championship. The only team in the league that returns all five starters, the Ramblers could also be the only team that starts five seniors. Krutwig and Williamson could become the winningest duo in school history this season. LU returns three other core players, sophomore guard Marquise Kennedy, sophomore guard Paxson Wojcik, junior forward Frank Agunanne and get 2019 All-Freshman Team member Cooper Kaifes back from a torn labrum in his hip. Kaifes, a 46.5% 3-point shooter as a true freshman, and Oakland transfer Braden Norris give the team with the fewest triples in the Valley last season new perimeter punch. Norris should fit in fine with Loyola after a 2.75 assist-to-turnover ratio at Oakland in 2018-19. Norris (8.4 ppg., 2.8 rpg., 5.2 apg.) shot 45.2% from the field and 48.6% from the 3-point line.
MISSOURI STATE BEARS (16-17, 9-9 MVC, tied for sixth place)
Coach: Dana Ford (32-22 at MSU, third season, 89-98 overall)
Returning starters: F Gaige Prim (13.7 ppg., 4.9 rpg., 49.3% FG), G Ja'Monta Black (3.2 ppg., 1.7 rpg.)
Big additions: G Demarcus Sharp, G/F Keaton Hervey, F Nic Tata, F Melvyn Ebonkoli
Missing in action: G Keandre Cook, F Tulio Da Silva, F Lamont West, G Ross Owens, G/F Josh Hall
Notes: MSU may thrive without the pressure of last season, when it was the preseason favorite in the league but nearly finished in the bottom four of the standings. Prim was one of the most dominant half-court players in the league and returns for his senior season. Black, sophomore forward Isiaih Mosley and junior forward Jared Ridder give the Bears perimeter threats around him. Sharp was a first team NJCAA All-American at Colby (Kansas) Community College, and was named the Jayhawk West Conference Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Sharp averaged 16.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.5 steals per game for a 27-5 squad. Ebonkoli was a high-level player in France that competed for Le Mans U17, U18 and U21 FIBA teams before transferring to Putnam (Connecticut) Science Prep Academy last season.
NORTHERN IOWA PANTHERS (25-6, 14-4 MVC, first place)
Coach: Ben Jacobson (291-174 at UNI, 15th season, 291-174 overall)
Returning starters: G A.J. Green (MVC Player of the Year, 19.7 ppg., 3 rpg., 41.6% FG, 39.1% 3PT, 91.7% FT), G Trae Berhow (12.5 ppg., 5.7 rpg., 49.8% FG, 44.6% 3PT, 83.6% FT), F Austin Phyfe (11.2 ppg., 8.2 rpg., 67.1% FG)
Big additions: G Bowen Born, F Cole Henry, F Tytan Anderson
Missing in action: G Isaiah Brown (MVC Defensive Player of the Year), G Spencer Haldeman, F Luke McDonnell, C Justin Dahl
Notes: Brown was a force for the Panthers at both ends during his career, but UNI returns three horses from last season's regular-season championship run in Green, Berhow and Phyfe. Green announced his return to the program earlier this summer after testing the NBA waters. UNI also returns senior guard Tywhon Pickford, one of only two seniors on the roster with sit-out forward Gonar Mar the other one, as well as sophomore forward Noah Carter, sophomore guard Antwan Kimmons and redshirt freshman forward Cole Henry. Look for Henry, a state champion at Oskaloosa High School in Iowa, and Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year Bowen Born to play some big minutes.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS SALUKIS (16-16, 10-8 MVC, fifth place)
Coach: Bryan Mullins (16-16 at SIU, second season, 16-16 overall)
Returning starters: G Marcus Domask (MVC Newcomer and Freshman of the Year, 13.6 ppg., 5.2 rpg., 54 3s, 39.7% 3PT), G Lance Jones (9.3 ppg., 2.9 rpg., 31 steals, 79 assists, 88 turnovers)
Big additions: F J.D. Muila, F Anthony D'Avanzo, G Ben Harvey, G Jakolby Long, F Kyler Filewich
Missing in action: G Eric McGill, G Aaron Cook, C Barret Benson, G Ronnie Suggs
Notes: The worst rebounding team in the Valley stocked up in that department with Muila (6.8 rebounds per game for 30-3 Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College), D'Avanzo (8.4 rebounds per game last season at Division II Lewis University) and freshman forward Kyler Filewich, who didn't lose a game last season for Orangeville Prep in Canada. Harvey sat out last season and is one of the best shooters on the squad. After a breakthrough season in 2019-20 the Salukis finally have a core they can build on with Domask, Jones, sophomores Trent Brown and Sekou Dembele and eight newcomers, and have one of the best recruiting classes in the league for 2021. Look for SIU to take a step forward at the offensive end in Year 2 of the Mullins era.
VALPARAISO CRUSADERS (19-16, 9-9 MVC, tied for sixth place)
Coach: Matt Lottich (73-60 at VU, fifth season, 73-60 overall)
Returning starters: G/F Donovan Clay (MVC All-Freshman Team, 9.4 ppg., 4.6 rpg., 36 blocks, 45.2% FG), F Mileek McMillan (8.8 ppg., 3.2 rpg., 46.3% FG), G Daniel Sackey (6.3 ppg., 2.5 rpg., 121 assists, 70 turnovers, 35 steals), G Nick Robinson (6.2 ppg., 3.9 rpg.)
Big additions: G Goodnews Kpegeol, G Sheldon Edwards, F Jacob Ognacevic
Missing in action: G Javon Freeman-Liberty, G/F John Kiser, G/F Ryan Fazekas
Notes: Valparaiso didn't have as much turnover as it did in 2019, but it will feel like it with the loss of Freeman-Liberty, Kiser and Fazekas. Freeman-Liberty helped the Crusaders reach the MVC Tournament finals against Bradley and was expected to be a preseason first team all-conference pick before he up and left for DePaul. Kiser was an emotional leader for the squad, and Fazekas a veteran scorer. The Crusaders return four starters and two other core players in 6-9 forward Ben Krikke (6.7 ppg., 2.9 rpg.) and senior guard Eron Gordon (5.2 ppg., 2.3 rpg.). Kpegeol is a former Kansas State player who played last season at a junior college, and Edwards and Ognacevic are promising freshmen. Clay may be Valpo's only true standout, but this team could be as deep as any in the Valley.
On Twitter: @THefferman
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